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May 12th - November 26th 2017


Speaking in Tongues by Paul Benney.

Curated by James Putman & Flora Fairbairn.


Location: Chiesa di San Gallo, San Marco 30124 Venice. Google maps link.

Opening hours: 10:00 - 18:00, closed Mondays.

Speaking in Tongues will be sited at the 16th century San Gallo Church, just north of St Mark’s Square, and is the centrepiece of an installation that includes sound and other smaller works in oil by the artist. Curated by James Putnam and Flora Fairbairn, this is the first time Speaking in Tongues has been shown outside of the UK. 


While a secular work, it draws on the story of the Pentecost in the New Testament, in which the twelve apostles encounter the Holy Spirit and then begin ‘speaking in tongues’. Modifying and updating this, Benney has painted twelve contemporaries of various ethnicities and religious backgrounds, with the aim of capturing a collective state of spiritual awakening.


Playing with the idea of narrative painting, Paul Benney introduced a sound element to the work, inviting each of the subjects to record transformative moments in their lives. These are relayed through holosonic speakers placed around the church. At first the viewer hears hushed murmuring, however, when they stand in a precise spot they hear individual voices, an effect achieved via sound-focusing technology that isolates the viewer from their own reality and the outside world. Then come the subject’s revelations. These are poignant and sometimes shocking – one man tells of how he accidentally shot dead his best friend; another reveals the joy of becoming a father – and, in the context of a religious setting they create the experience of receiving a confession.


Speaking in Tongues relates to the experience of ‘unconscious talking’, of speaking directly from the spirit within, rather than from the mind, and the intimacy is further intensified by the visual mystery Benney introduces to the painting. While the work was partly inspired by Goya's 'Lunatics in the Yard' (1794), and uses the traditional technique of chiaroscuro and dramatic tonal contrasts between light and dark, Benney has also added a supernatural element, with flames emanating from each subject’s head. This again echoes the story of the Pentecost, where ‘tongues’ of fire descended and rested on the apostles, as well as bringing to mind the imagery of the animation of the spirit or soul found in many religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.


Fire is also apparent in Benney’s Reliquary series, which will be displayed either side of Speaking in Tongues. The suite of six, small-scale canvasses depict the type of candles burnt as a votive offering in the Christian church. However, Benney has covered the candles with a bell jar. Starved of oxygen, the flame sequentially depletes, with the final painting showing the flame’s last gasp.

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